Research into the effect of food preservatives on gut health has found they can have both positive and negative effects on the delicate balance of microbes in the gut.

A recent study looked in more depth at a class of bacteriocins with especially potent antimicrobial properties, which are widely used by the food industry to prevent food spoiling.

Bacteriocins are chemicals produced by bacteria to destroy microbial competitors, and they can work as natural preservatives.

Researchers from the University of Chicago looked at a class of bacteriocins called lanthipeptides, which have become known as ‘lantibiotics’.

Their findings demonstrate that while different lantibiotics had differing effects, they killed both pathogens and commensal bacteria in the gut.

Commensal bacteria have an important role to play in the body – breaking down nutrients, producing metabolites to help the body convert food into energy, and protecting against pathogens.

Zhenrun ‘Jerry’ Zhang, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in the lab of Dr Eric Pamer, the Donald F. Steiner Professor of Medicine and Director of the Duchossois Family Institute at the University of Chicago, set out to examine the effects of naturally-produced lantibiotics on commensal gut bacteria.

Commenting on the findings, he said: “With the levels of lantibiotics currently present in food, it’s very probable that they might impact our gut health as well.

“This study is one of the first to show that gut commensals are susceptible to lantibiotics, and are sometimes more sensitive than pathogens.

“It seems that lantibiotics and lantibiotic-producing bacteria are not always good for health, so we are looking for ways to counter the potential bad influence while taking advantage of their more beneficial antimicrobial properties.”

The team also looked into the make-up of peptides in lantibiotics to try to gain an insight into their activity, with a view to harnessing their antimicrobial properties for good.

They are also looking to study the prevalence of lantibiotic-resistant genes in different populations in a bid to understand how different diets and conditions could play a role in how bacteria colonise the gut.

Read the full study in ACS Chemical Biology.

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